Popular Science: How do we choose a partner? Do partner preferences remain stable throughout a relationship?
When it comes to the notion of an ideal partner, most studies show vast differences between people in their preferences. There are, however, some universal patterns. Men and women both prefer partners who are committed and faithful. Men in general tend to value physical attractiveness more than women. Women are, on the other hand, more interested
in social status and resources. But partner choice might not be guided only by the absolute value
of a characteristics (e.g. our partner owns a Ford Fiesta). A difference between ideal and real characteristics might also be very important (an ideal partner would own a Porsche, but the real partner has a Ford Fiesta). This difference has shown to predict satisfaction in a relationship and the probability of the relationship ending.
In this study, 204 single Czech people were asked to complete a questionnaire in order to assess their ideal partner preferences. The authors were therefore able to identify four factors that best characterized an ideal partner. These factors consisted of characteristics related to social status and resources, warmth and trustworthiness, energy and vitality, physical attractiveness and health. The same four factors were also seen in English-speaking participants.
The authors of this study were also interested in the stability of partner preferences. Do they remain stable or change during a relationship? The results of this study suggest that in long-term relationships, partner preferences change (probably occurring at the beginning of the relationship). The difference between ideal partner preferences and the characteristics of the real partner were lower in long-term relationships than in other relationships. It means that if we are in a long-term relationship, our notion of an ideal partner is more similar to the actual characteristics of our real partner (A Ford Fiesta is actually quite a good car).
Why do we change ideal partner preferences during relationships? Observed changes might be important for maintaining a relationship. One theory that could explain the results of this study is so-called “survival bias”—the relationship would have ended if it had not been for the change in partner preferences. Under this theory, we are only able to study the relationships where this change in preferences has occurred, because the other relationships no longer exist. Another theory suggests that it is not the notion of an ideal partner that changes when we are in a relationship. Instead, we lessen the importance of several characteristics so that the relationship can survive despite the differences between the ideal partner preferences and the characteristics of the actual partner.